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Why must we say 'a three-MAN committee' and not 'a three-MEN committee', 'a two-DAY programme' and not 'a two-DAYS programme'?

If we argue that it's because of the article 'a', since we can't have 'a men' but 'a man', then what of the 'three' before it? Can we have 'a three'?

I need the explanation of that rule.

  • 2
    The article belongs to the 'head' noun, committee or programme, not to the attributive noun phrase. As for Why we don't use plural with the attributive, I'm afraid the only answer is Because that's the way we handle measurements. A two-day program, a three-mile journey, even though the program goes on for two days and the journey is three miles long. – StoneyB Jun 12 '15 at 10:38
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There are two questions here:

  • articles

a two-day programme

a three-man committee

the use of the indefinite article refers to the words 'programme' and 'committee' which are singular, and thus allow (or sometimes require) the use of the indefinite article. Articles (and other determiners) are positioned at the beginning of a noun phrase, even though they refer to the head noun and not the words that directly follow them.

This is simply a way to construct this type of words (which are, as StoneyB pointed out, used for measurements). When you combine a number and a noun in this particular way you don't have two words any more, you have a new, compound word, which follows new rules. Compound words can be written unseparated (a bookworm, lifetime), with a hyphen (last-minute, sun-dried, two-day, three-man, etc.) or they can be written separately (world famous). With the type of compound words you are asking about, a hyphen is used.

Note that you would say:

I attended a two-day conference.

Which means that you attended a conference which lasted two days.

If you said:

I attended two days of the conference.

means that you were there for two days, but the conference may have (and probably has) lasted longer.

Or consider this example:

A two-word phrase is one that consists of two words.

  • Is it idiomatic when you say I attended two days of something? – user18856 Jun 12 '15 at 11:33
  • Could you say I attended the conference two days or the preposition is needed? – user18856 Jun 12 '15 at 11:36
  • @AmD uh, oh well... when you ask a non-native speaker (like me) about prepositions sometimes you get a centipede that can't dance :-) - I'm checking, let me get back to you with this, in a while – Lucky Jun 12 '15 at 12:01
  • I found these: Finally, one distinguished commentator, who had not attended the first two days of the conference because he had had more pressing business and: "A 10% discount is available to groups of six (6) or more educators attending the Friday portion of the conference." from a US based organisation's FAQ. [to be continued...] – Lucky Jun 12 '15 at 12:27
  • So I'd say it does sound idiomatic. It should be the same as: I didn't attend the whole conference, I was interested only in the waste management part of it. For your second question "I attended the conference two days" sounds off - you could say: I attended the conference for two days or better yet "I was at the conference for two days" See also: attended for * days, attended * days of at google ngrams (the link is too big to post in a comment; see their FAQ if you don't get a graph) @AmD – Lucky Jun 12 '15 at 13:23
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Compound adjectives of the type number + noun always use the noun in singular form:

  • A child of three years is a three-year old child.

  • A length of ten metres is a ten-metre length.

One can think about why this is in this way. If you hear "ten metres" you know it is a normal plural and probably a verb will follow. When you hear "a ten metre" you can be sure it is a compound adjective and a noun will follow.

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